Illegal Suites - Death Traps or Affordable Housing?

Benjamin Alldritt
March 5, 2012

Every morning, hundreds of North Shore residents, possibly thousands, raise their heads from their pillows in illegal homes. Some of these residences are firetraps. Some violate the local zoning bylaws. But most are the only homes their tenants can afford on the North Shore.

Exactly how to balance the need for affordable housing against fire safety and the rule of law is something that has vexed local government for decades.

Richard White, deputy city manager for the City of North Vancouver, says the issue dates all the way back to the Second World War, when homeowners were encouraged to rent out part of their houses to support the burgeoning workforce at the shipyards. A few dozen of these wartime suites still exist. They are technically legal, despite being a half-century out of step with the building code.

In the years following the war, the pendulum swung the other way, with houses that tended to be smaller and generally didn't have basements readily converted into suites. What's more, owners were starting to be more concerned about the character of their single-family home neighbourhoods. That's when the city first stepped in to prohibit new secondary suites.

"I think it was a pride-of-ownership thing," said White. "People thought 'We don't live in an apartment district, we live in a single-family area.' The typical response was from a neighbour who didn't want "renters' next door, even though the whole house could be rented at any time."

Secondary suite regulations in your area




Delta (Ladner, North Delta, Tsawwassen)


Maple Ridge

New Westminster

North Vancouver (City)

North Vancouver (District)


Port Coquitlam

Port Moody



West Vancouver

As the years went by, houses grew larger again and were sometimes purchased as an investment rather than as a home for the owner.

"That would annoy the neighbours because then the landlord isn't there to keep an eye on things," White said.

Early in White's career with the city, in the late 1970s, planning staff hired a few students to spend the summer surveying exactly how many suites there were.

"Some people refused to let them in but for the most part we had co-operation. We probably went into 80 per cent of the houses, and we found several hundred more suites than we had expected," White recalled.

In a 2009 housing study, Metro Vancouver estimated there are slightly more than 7,000 secondary suites on the North Shore, and White guessed two-thirds of those are likely "out of compliance" in one way or another.

Based on the survey results, the city struck a citizens' committee to decide how to address the suite question. After a few false starts -- such as allowing suites only for family members -- the city ultimately legalized secondary suites in single-family houses.

The province also updated the building code, relaxing some of the requirements for fire separation between the two units.

What also came to light during the survey was the growing number of suites in duplexes.

"Typically a duplex can have two suites, and that's starting to sound like an apartment building. There are some very large duplexes in the city," said White, "and some of them may have had four or more suites."

The city banned these outright, although many still exist. Once a contentious issue, basement suites in single-family homes have "more or less disappeared as an issue since then," White said. "That change has been very productive for the city and it's created more affordable housing for the city, for sure, which is a side benefit that was buried in the issue initially."

The District of North Vancouver has a similar set of bylaws, allowing secondary suites only in a single-family home in which the owner lives. The suite cannot be more than 40 per cent of the building. West Vancouver has only recently allowed suites, but owners face hundreds of dollars in fees to have their suite inspected and legally registered, a policy that has likely deterred many from coming forward.

The duplex question remains problematic in the city. Two cases that have come before council in the past year have been on city hall's radar, incredibly, for decades. Despite complaints from neighbours, White said actually enforcing the bylaw is a tricky proposition.

"It's not like a conventional infraction, where there's an action and a ticket and then you go to the courts. You're dealing with the owner's rights to the property, and a tenant or tenants' rights as well. The city has an affordable housing policy that encourages us to increase the amount of affordable housing. Our city is a great example of that pendulum swinging back and forth between wanting compliance and a willingness to accept. I know of places where there have been complaints, the suites have been removed, and then they get reinstalled. Do you go every year and check?"

In one duplex on the 300-block of East 14th Street, city inspectors discovered two illegal suites and ordered them removed. The owner complied, only to reinstall the kitchen appliances after the inspectors left. When the neighbours complained again and staff returned, the owner applied to have his building rezoned. Council denied his application, but the owner took the case to court and won. That rezoning is now going forward.

In another case, in Ottawa Gardens, neighbours got into a dispute with the tenants in an illegal fourplex. That case was also headed to court until Coun. Rod Clark abruptly changed his mind and helped vote down a staff request for a court order.

"It was just in advance of the election," Clark said. "Believe me, I considered what the political impact would be to me, but changing my mind needed to be done. I reconsidered the implications to the people in the suites."

Clark's change of heart was motivated, he said, by conversations he had with two senior citizens, both widowed and both living in illegal suites in duplexes.

"They called me up and said Rod, there are literally thousands, or at least hundreds of these things that operate under the radar and there's no problem. The city policy of just acting on complaints is a bad one. How can it be that you allow them in single-family homes but not in duplexes?

"And I thought about it for a good long time. There is a problem with low-cost housing in the City of North Vancouver, and this is a way to provide it. I don't get many complaints about suites in duplexes, but everyone knows they're there. The whole situation is a mess. In that kind of milieu, I cannot go for turning people out who are paying a reasonable rent and have contributed to the community for many years. I can't see them turned out into the street over a technicality, in my mind."

Clark, who lives in a legal suite himself and has also been a landlord in years past, said he struggled to overcome his irritation with owners who openly defy the city's bylaws.

"I did it in spite of them," he said. "I did it because people are crying for affordable housing. Before then, I was blinded and enraged by the arrogance and the thumb on the nose that those two people were giving council and the community in general."

But the veteran councillor admits that legalizing duplex suites may be "the thin end of the wedge."

"If we allow them in duplexes, you know the next place they'll want them? In apartment buildings. So I don't know where it's going. But there's so much pressure on our housing stock.

"There is a balance, and I don't pretend to know what that balance is. If we get a complaint that someone is living in a crawlspace and the access isn't good and there are no fire alarms, yeah, we have to take action because it's a life safety issue. I would never override the fire department. But I don't know where that line is, to be honest."